Neil deGrasse Tyson: Science Literacy Is Important for the Future of the U.S.

As he prepares to enter the realm of late night TV, the astrophysicist spoke with Not Impossible Now about science’s role in a democracy.
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As he prepares to enter the realm of late night TV, the astrophysicist spoke with Not Impossible Now about science’s role in a democracy.

If there’s a rock star among real-life astrophysicists, it's most certainly Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. And that star just got even more visible at night.

Renowned in his field as an author, lecturer and director of the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, Tyson has also connected with an increasingly large mainstream audience — due in large part to his charismatic and telegenic appearances as the host of FOX’s hit science series “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” and his popular podcast “Star Talk,” as well as his vast social media reach — becoming perhaps the most visible pop cultural ambassador for real-world science since Carl Sagan himself.

In April, the National Geographic Channel will expand Tyson’s reach even further, bringing “Star Talk” to television as the cable network's first-ever late-night talk show, designed to bring a diverse and accessible panel of celebrities, comedians and scientists together to discuss a myriad of science and tech-based topics of the moment, where literally every subject in the universe is open for exploration.

As he prepares for his latest foray into uncharted territory, Tyson sat down with Not Impossible Now to take a look at the increasing profile of science in the popular culture. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)

NIN: What got you excited about the new direction for “Star Talk?”

Neil deGrasse Tyson: We have high expectations for it because it’s already a thriving podcast radio show, and so now we’re stepping into this natural next step in media, television. And it’s not like that experiment hasn’t been done before. Howard Stern had a TV thing, there’s “Mike & Mike.” If you channel surf, you stumble on these radio shows that are filmed for television, so I said, “Well, if ‘Mike & Mike’ can have a show, I can have a show” (laughs).

What do you hope that the TV element will bring to what you’ve been doing?

Tyson: It’s interesting to think about the differences here: in the radio format, in podcast format, you can take me on the treadmill with you, right? There you are, you downloaded it, and I’m there with you on the treadmill. Television’s like a different mode of interaction. You’re there at home. You’re not in your car — we hope you’re not in your car watching television (laughs) — so it needs to have a visual dimension that we previously didn’t have to think about. But the universe has no shortage of visual dimensionality, so I don’t fear this challenge. In fact, I fully embrace it.

But to be on the National Geographic channels, with this huge distribution around the world, it’s going to expose science in a whole other way. And what remains to be demonstrated, since “Star Talk Radio” is a mixture of three components that we take very seriously: Comedy, science and pop culture — it’s the blend of these three that is “Star Talk,” and my co-host, in every episode, is a professional stand-up comedian reacting to the science that we talk about with the guest. So a lot of the comedy is sort of timeless. I don’t know if very deeply American comedy can port — I will find out, and I don’t have any reservations about doing that experiment.

But one thing that will be true is that we will always land on some scientific idea with some scientific concepts. So even if you don’t get the joke, or if you don’t follow the purely American pop culture, science will be orbiting everything that we talk about. And the guests are hewn from pop culture for that very reason. Occasionally there’s a science guest. But most of the time, it’s someone, it’s a performer, it’s an athlete, it’s a journalist — it’s somebody who is not a scientist, but whose life has been touched by science in some fundamental way.

Neil deGrasse Tyson (Photo courtesy of FOX)

Photo courtesy of FOX

What you’ve done in a lot of your work in the few years reminds me of the late ’70s, early ’80s, when there was sort of a pop culture interest in science, inspired space fantasies and science fiction in the zeitgeist, like “Star Wars” and “Star Trek.” We had the space shuttle program still going. We had things like Omni magazine. Carl Sagan’s original “Cosmos.” There was a moment where pop culture and science were really intersecting.

Tyson: I forgot all about Omni magazine! That’s right. There was another one, Discover 1980, or something. It was the year associated with the name of the magazine.

And with what you’ve been doing with Cosmos and your podcast and your own pop culture profile right now, you’ve shown that there is this appetite, this interest, on a very common, mainstream level, in science. What has that meant to you to see that emerging?

Tyson: Thanks for noticing that — or rather, thanks for understanding it at that level, because not enough people think about it that deeply. I don’t think I’m creating an interest. I think I’m feeding an interest that people didn’t know they had. Or that was there but had gone dormant. Or that was an ember that just needed to be fanned to catch a flame because there are other forces operating. And you don’t have to go far to find them.

Just look at the success of “The Big Bang Theory” television series. Though they might be caricatures, the fact is, who would have thought? If 20 years ago you were going to pitch a show, “I got an idea. Let’s have four scientists. They’re all PhD physicists. And it’ll be a sitcom.” It’s like “Get the f--- away! What are you doing? Give me my cop drama back, or give me my lawyer courtroom drama, or give me my medical drama.” I don’t think people knew that this appetite lurked within us all. And, I don’t want to say I lay awake at night sleepless over this, but I think often, how many sitcoms could have come forth over the decades that celebrated science that did not, simply because of the fear factor of programmers and television executives. And so now we have “The Big Bang Theory” that’s winning every such contest, and first out of the box. So I can’t take credit for that. I can’t take credit for that climate. I’m on that landscape.

You’re surfing the wave.

Tyson: Yes, yes. I’m on that landscape, for sure. And the fact that “Cosmos” appeared on FOX, and then went to world distribution via National Geographic, that is itself a pop culture statement. It was not relegated to the higher channels where you only know to go there if you know that you’re interested in science. So I’m happy to be feeding this phenomenon.

Neil deGrasse Tyson (Photo courtesy of FOX)

Photo courtesy of FOX

When you see, on a personal level, advances in technology which have really improved someone’s life for the better, what does it mean to you to see technology being able to change a person's existence profoundly?

Tyson: Yeah, that’s been happening since the Industrial Revolution, where life is completely different. Probably the biggest effect — which if you’re born into it, you will not notice — is that neither you nor I are farmers (laughs). There was a time — what are the numbers? At the time the country was founded, was it 50 percent of everyone was a farmer or involved in creating food? And what an extraordinary fact that is: that we produce more food on less land with fewer people than ever before. Yet, we just sort of live that, and we’re not actively thinking about it.

You look at transportation, where certain journeys, which were month-long wagon trail trips, now are afternoon excursions and you’re home for dinner. Transportation has transformed us. Health advances have transformed us. We have 70-year-olds running marathons — and you and I are old enough, I presume, to remember there’s a Paul Simon song called “Bookends,” written in the ’60s that talks about two old men on a park bench, “sitting on a park bench like bookends.” And in it, they are singing about how strange it is to be 70. In the ’60s, you were an old man if you were 70. Old man! And now, no. You’re not old at 70, I’m happy to say.

So there are certain transformations in our culture and our society that happen, slowly but irreversibly, and all for the better that I worry that many of us take for granted. My kids are not thinking that there are orbiting GPS satellites communicating with us corrected by Einstein’s general relativity because they’re in a different part of Earth’s gravity field and clocks tick at a different rate so they’re pre-corrected by calculations done on the satellite. No, no — it’s just my smart phone. So I think occasionally, we take it for granted, and you get people saying, “Oh, I don’t need science. Science is bad or scientists are evil.” Or, “Don’t believe the scientists.” These people, if you remove from their lives, all of the forces that have enabled their lives brought to you by science and technology, they’d just be living in a cave. And maybe we should do that. Just round up everybody who’s anti-science and say, “Okay, here you go. There’s your plot of land. Here’s your cave. Just have at it. Go for it.”

So maybe science needs better PR, I don’t know. But we live in an era where people are cherry-picking science results in ways that don’t conflict with their philosophies. Be they cultural, religious or economic. Whatever’s your philosophy, we live in a time where people are cherry-picking science only in ways that serve their philosophy. And that’s not how science works. It’s the beginning and the end of your culture if you think that’s how science works. Other countries will rise up. So science literacy, I think, is important for a democracy, for the future of the United States. Particularly having grown up in an era where people understood the importance of science in their lives, I think.

Photo courtesy of FOX

Photo courtesy of FOX

What was the pop culture influence outside of the classroom and the textbooks — a comic book, a science fiction novel, a TV show — that helped spark your interest in science.

Tyson: For me? Oh, it was a visit to my local planetarium. And it was an interest in the universe, specifically. Later on, I would embrace all of science, certainly, as most scientists do. But it was a family visit, which, not to presume that my life is any exemplar of what life should be like for others, but I think it speaks well of the role of cultural institutions in any city, be they art museums or zoos or any place where you can visit and you can see scientists at work, doing kind of cool things — scientists or artists or creative types. So trips such as this get remembered long into adulthood, and they can have a force of influence on who and what you become in ways that just staying home might not.

If you had unlimited resources of time, money, whatever it was you needed —

Tyson: I like questions that begin like that!

— What would you like to make not impossible? Is there something that you would target, either on a personal or just a fundamental level where you think, “If I could devote everything to this, solve it, improve it.” Whatever it is, is there something that leaps to your mind?

Tyson: Well, see, to me, I probably use the word “impossible” differently from most people. As a scientist, if something’s impossible, it means is in direct violation of known and tested laws of physics. This is what impossible would mean to us. For most people, they might think of impossible as, “Well, technology isn’t quite there yet, but maybe one day. It’s impossible now.” That’s not how I think of it.

So for example, you go back a hundred years, people said it was impossible to break the sound barrier. Those people were idiots, okay? You know why? Because rifle bullets travel faster than sound. The tip of a bullwhip travels faster than sound. People said, “Oh, we’ll never have heavier than air flight. It is impossible.” No, it’s not. Birds are heavier than air, last I checked, and they fly. So just because you don’t know how to do it, should not be equated with it being impossible.

As a scientist, for me impossible is in direct conflict with known and tested laws of physics. I would say if I were to make something not impossible, for my world of impossible, it would be really cool if machines did not lose energy just by functioning. If that were the case, you could build a perpetual motion machine. That would be cool — but it violates direct and known laws of physics. That would be cool. You could build 100 percent efficient machines. You could drive your car and the engine would never get hot. You know why? Because the heat would go to drive the car. Rather than just get radiated out. And you wouldn’t need coolants, you wouldn’t need any of that. Because the efficiency of the machine would not lose any of that energy to heat. That’s what I would do. I would violate the second law of thermodynamics. 

Top photo credit: Patrick Ecclesine/FOX